Hardware Today: Dual-Core Processors Saddle Up

Monday Jul 11th 2005 by Drew Robb
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With AMD already a lap ahead in the dual-core race, can Intel catch up? Will dual core triumph in all sectors, or will single core sometimes remain the way to go?

It's been only a a few months since dual-core processors entered the market place. Although it's too early for analysts to compile and analyze the related data, the leading chip vendors appear happy with the initial results.

"We are experiencing a strong ramp up of dual-core processors at an aggressive pace," says Pat Patla, director of server and workstation marketing at AMD.

Intel, which thus far has shipped only dual-core Pentium D chips in desktops and workstations and on Monday announced dual-core chips for entry-level servers, is pleased with the initial response. "Our dual-core processors have been well received and continue to ramp to our expectations," says Stephen Thorne, product marketing engineer for Intel's Digital Enterprise Group.

AMD has established a clear early lead in the dual-core server race. In April, it released the AMD Opteron 800 series — the 275, 270, and 260 models are available in various configurations up to 8-way. The company followed up quickly with the Opteron 200 series of 2-way dual-core chips in May.

"Opteron advantage grows with the number of processors in the system," says Nathan Brookwood of Insight64. "2-way is better than a single processor, and 4-way is better than 2-way."

So who is buying? Patla says AMD's new offerings are selling in all traditional platforms. It is finding usage in general IT infrastructure servers, as well as in databases, Citrix clients, and in high-performance technical applications.

"The obvious dual-core advantage of high performance and less wattage is becoming very well understood," says Patla. "When people see the demo, they immediately purchase."

Intel Inside and Behind

While AMD has earned all the kudos to date, it would be premature to assume Intel has been shut out of the dual-core race. On Monday, Intel announced its first server-based dual-core processor. Granted, it is still a Pentium D, but it is a start. This processor is aimed at entry-level servers and performs with the Intel E7230 chipset. It also includes PCI Express I/O, 64-bit addressability, DDR2 memory, and software RAID.

Dell is the first of the OEMs to climb aboard the Intel dual-core bus. The PowerEdge SC430, priced at a moderate $850 for the dual-core variant, is the first machine to use the technology.

""We cannot find a place where dual core is not needed in the server and workstation marketplace. It is difficult to find benchmarks where you shouldn't be looking at dual core." — Pat Patla, director of server and workstation marketing, AMD

"This platform is a great value for smaller businesses wishing to buy powerful entry-level servers," says Thorne. "It is the first announcement in what will be an extensive family of Intel-based dual-core server products shipping later this year and in 2006."

Thorne reports that Intel's dual-core chips are being purchased mainly by high-performance users with an immediate need for multithreading support. With the addition of its first server-based systems, he says a greater number of server and workstation applications will be seen due to dual-core processing bringing about a marked improvement in performance and efficiency. This includes users of multithreaded database, infrastructure, Web, and mail applications. Additional usage is also expected in specialized high-performance computing segments, such as digital content creation.

But dual-core is not a silver bullet for everyone. Thorne believes single-threaded applications are not the province for this new processor.

"Dual-core processing has very limited benefits for users of single-threaded software applications," says Thorne. "Users will not realize any performance benefit unless they are multitasking and executing a number of applications simultaneously."

AMD's Patla disagrees, however. According to his numbers, even single threading can benefit from dual core. Benchmark tests, he says, show big gains in a multitasking environment and some gains on single tasks running on dual-core chips.

"We cannot find a place where dual core is not needed in the server and workstation marketplace," says Patla. "It is difficult to find benchmarks where you shouldn't be looking at dual core."

When looked at from a pure numbers perspective, a compelling argument easily can be made for dual core. An entry-level, dual-core processor from AMD is the same price as the highest-end, single-core model, yet provides on average a 20-percent performance gain.

>> Not Over Yet

Game (Not) Over

Intel may be late to the party, but that may not mean much in the long term. The company has ambitious catch-up plans. Thorne says the chipmaker has more than 15 multicore projects under way.

"Aided by our investment and advantage in manufacturing, we currently have a goal for 85 percent of our server processors and 70 percent of mobile and desktop processors to be dual core capable by the end of 2006," he says.

In other words: Intel is planning to ship dual-core Intel Itanium processors before the end of this year and follow up rapidly with the release of dual-core Intel Xeon processors in the first quarter of 2006. By then, Intel will have mobilized an army of system and software vendors supporting its dual-core offerings. Thus, we could be looking at a scenario similar to the one that unfolded with 64-bit technology — AMD took a big early lead, became the darling of the market, only to be surpassed in sales by the slumbering giant.

We could be looking at a scenario similar to the one that unfolded with 64-bit technology — AMD took a big early lead, became the darling of the market, only to be surpassed in sales by the slumbering giant.
"As you saw with x86 64-bit processors, the competition had over a one year head start on technology delivery to the market," says Thorne. "Yet within six months of Intel's launch of the 64-bit Xeon processors, we had sold three times as many x86 64-bit processors than our competitor in a third of the time."

It's his premise that enterprise customers are not early adopters. They wait at least six to nine months after a new product's initial arrival before buying. In the interim, they evaluate it throughout and then validate it on their own systems. Being first to market, then, may not deliver the big advantage AMD hoped.

Meanwhile, just as Intel is gearing up to extend the reach of its dual-core product portfolio, AMD is racing at full speed to extend dual core across its entire range. The company is so convinced that dual core is the way of the future that it intends to move all of its Opteron chips to dual core in the near term.

How near term? An ambitious time line has all AMD Opteron server and workstation chips being converted to dual-core technology by the end of 2006.

"There is no doubt that dual core is the future," says Patla. "We intend to make a rapid and 100-percent transition to dual-core Opteron chips."

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